(This piece was originally published on 9 February, and is being republished in light of the Supreme Court's recent observations on the rise in hate speech cases, and the State's response to them.)
Keeping in mind its duty to protect fundamental rights and constitutional values, the Supreme Court, in October 2022, directed the governments of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Delhi to file a report enlisting what action had been taken by them with regard to the instances of hate speech (referred in the writ petition before them).
The court also asked the state governments to take necessary steps as and when any act is done within their jurisdiction which attracts hate-speech related offences (such as under Sections 153A, 153B, 295A and 506 of IPC), and further to issue directions to the subordinate authorities to take appropriate action at the earliest irrespective of the religion of the speaker.
These directions were given with a view to preserve and protect the rule of law and the secular character of our country.
The apex court, on 14 January, while reiterating its earlier stand, observed that free speech should be protected, but at the same time no one, including the media, must be allowed to misuse this liberty. The court pointed out that in certain areas, irresponsible behaviour of TV news anchors, hinders social harmony.
Despite the apex court repeatedly taking a very firm stand in the matter, the governments concerned are not acting seriously; and hate speech by mischievous elements of the society rages openly, unabated.
As recently as last week, an apex court bench noted that nobody was taking action against hate speeches despite its orders, and reportedly observed that the top court will be left "embarrassed again and again" if it is asked to give further directions to curb such statements.
So What Can the Apex Court Now Do?
It is the right time for Supreme Court to appoint a monitoring committee at the Central level and sub committees at the State level, comprising responsible persons with secular credentials to monitor the speeches and acts of all persons and media organisations causing injury to the harmony of our society.
The apex court may also take cognizance of speeches and acts that appear to be hurting secular values, and take stringent steps against the persons responsible.
In any case the Court must ensure effective action under relevant criminal laws against such individuals and media persons.
As far as our executive is concerned it is unfortunate that these days it prioritises the instructions and interests of political bosses, over the fundamentals of governance and the relevant laws. In the last few years, the executive appears to have also developed a tendency to shirk its responsibilities and to shift every burden on to the courts – especially in politically controversial matters, or in matters where a section of the public may be agitated. This tendency has to be checked.
Thus, the Supreme Court must book government officials, and take action against them under Article 129 of the Constitution and also under the Contempt of Courts Act 1971, if they do not comply with the directions given by it in true spirit.
As articulated by Supreme Court’s Justice KM Joseph, earlier this week, while hearing a writ petition filed by a man against the UP Police's inaction in his complaint:
“There is no space for hate crime in a secular country.”
(Justice Govind Mathur is a former Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)